2018-09-20 Reflections from the Rector

The Mystery of Compline
by the Rev. Poulson Reed

There is something wonderful and mysterious about Compline, the prayers for the end of day in our Book of Common Prayer.

Compline is more than a thousand years old and comes from the Roman Catholic tradition.  But the Compline phenomenon in the Episcopal Church can be traced back to 1956 and Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Seattle.  Hundreds of people (many of them young adults) attend Compline at Saint Mark’s at 9:30pm on Sundays.  This ancient form of prayer has found a cultural foothold in one of the most secular cities in the country.

Compline is not new to All Saints’.  We offer said Compline during our Lenten evenings every year, and sung Compline has been a periodic form of worship at various points during my nine years here.  But as of this fall, sung Compline will be a monthly offering, starting this week, not replacing but in addition to choral Evensong.  Those who have experienced Evensong but not Compline will find some similarities, but a number of differences.  Like choral Evensong, Compline may seem rather passive at first, but actually involves a great deal of active listening.  But while Evensong is a “Cathedral” style service with soaring music and Anglican grandeur, Compline is a quieter, shorter, more contemplative, and more “Monastic” meditation.  In monasteries and convents, Compline is a relatively brief, mostly memorized form, meant to be the last words said or sung before bed.  After Compline, there is the Great Silence until Morning Prayer (“Lord, Open Our Lips”).

Why does Compline touch human hearts so deeply, from those of students and young adults to monks and nuns in their last years?  Yes, it is soothing and atmospheric, saturated with silence in a world that is filled with anything but.  But even more so, I think part of the mysterious appeal of Compline is its gentle reminder of our mortality.  Strange, I know, to think that mortality might be appealing.  But in these night prayers (“The Lord almighty grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect end…Lord, now let your servant depart in peace”) we touch on something profound: none of us is here forever, and while God grants us earthly life, we are called to live full lives, loving God and our neighbor, treasuring every blessing, until we are drawn into God’s perfect peace.  Every day is a gift.

I first experienced Compline as a graduate student at Yale Divinity School in the mid 1990s.  I was singing in the choir at Christ Church, New Haven, just off the Yale campus.  Under the direction of the choirmaster, Rob Lehman, we began to offer Compline at 9pm on Sundays during the academic year.  With chanted prayers, incense, and candles in a darkened church, Compline was the very opposite of the bright, loud contemporary “praise” worship that was (and is) all the rage in some circles.  Compline wasn’t long (about 25 minutes), had no sermon, and it had almost no congregational participation.  But it began to grow a following of Yale students, for whom 9pm was a convenient time for a study break.  By its second or third year, Compline made a top-ten list in the student newspaper for cool things to do!  Compline continues to be offered at Christ Church to this day, drawing spiritually curious young people into the mysterious orbit of the Church.

Come experience this ancient form of prayer.  Be soothed and renewed by it, and find holy rest in God’s presence.


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